Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sailboats and granite and trees, oh my!

Two weeks later, and here I am writing in Hirtshals, in northern Jutland in Denmark. It’s been an exciting and exhausting trip: four out of five Nordic capitals in one week’s time span, which provided a very brief tour of Scandinavia between my long stays in Iceland and Denmark. I hadn’t really been expecting much culture shock traveling from Iceland to Scandinavia, but wow – the shock of flying into Stockholm and seeing forests for the first time in twelve weeks! I hadn’t realized how much I had gotten used to only seeing green basalt fields and volcanic mountains everywhere, but I spent the entire first week marveling at the Scandinavian landscape. I had gotten used to telling everyone about how Iceland is completely different from anywhere else in the world, but it didn’t really sink in until I found myself for the first time all summer looking at the tree-lined streets just beginning to turn colors for autumn and granite outcrops along the side of the road and on the Baltic shoreline and even the brick buildings (remember, no clay for bricks in Iceland).

Look – trees on a granite outcrop in Stockholm! And to think I found this mundane while living in New England….

I had also forgotten how small Iceland really is until I left. Stockholm, mind you, has more than six times the population of all of Iceland just in the city, and it certainly shows. Even Reykjavik had seemed rather large to me after spending most of my time in Akureyri and in Vestmannaeyjar, so I was completely overwhelmed to find myself in bustling cities with huge numbers of people (and wearing dressy city clothes too) and riding crowded trams and trains and buses to get around. I felt like such a star-struck country girl, suddenly in the big city and looking around wide-eyed at the tall buildings and all the people and noise and action.

I still haven’t seen most of the “normal” touristy things you’re supposed to do when you go to these cities (I don’t know who makes this list, but it does give me an excuse to go back…) but it has been quite a trip. After flying into Stockholm, still marveling at absolutely everything I passed, I met Nat, Williams-Mystic F’03 at the Vasa Museum (it’s a small world finding WM alumni on my travels, though not so surprising considering that it’s one of the best maritime museums in the world). He was an excellent host and showed me around Stockholm and around the Vasa Museum during my brief twenty-four hours in Sweden. Which was definitely not long enough – the city is gorgeous, and with all the islands spreading out into the Stockholm archipelago, there are lots of beautiful old boats everywhere (ferries, leisure sailboats, even floating bars).

The most exciting thing I saw, though, was the Vasa herself. Absolutely the most impressive wooden ship I’ve ever seen: she was built in the 17th century by the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus in the midst of the Thirty Years War as a fancy state-of-the-art warship with an extra deck of canons and decorated with a ton of sculptures, since the ship was also to be a floating embassy. Unfortunately, though, the extra size made the ship decidedly unstable (overlarge and top-heavy) and at the very beginning of her maiden voyage, before she had even gotten through the islands around Stockholm, she keeled over and sank along with much of her crew. So she spent most of her life buried in the mud outside Stockholm until a marine archaeological excavation team found her in the 1950s and brought her back to the surface. Not sure the best way to describe the ship, but she’s huge (couldn't even take a picture of the whole thing), and provided the model for the Flying Dutchman in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (also funny story - a marine architect went to see the set they'd made for the boat in the movie, which was basically a top of a ship on a barge, and said it was really unstable and would flip over and they people on the set were like, but we designed it based on a real ship, and the architect said, yeah, what ship?, and when the guy told him it was the Vasa, he was like yeah, know what happened to that ship...?).

Here’s my best attempt to show how large and impressive she is in person:

And to get a sense of how decorative she is, here’s the stern, completely adorned with wooden sculptures:

For a really good tour of the Vasa, though (even more than what I got to see), check out Nat’s tour-by-blog.

To get from Stockholm to Helsinki after my brief stop in Sweden, I took the ferry, which was an experience in itself. Normally when I think of a ferry, I think of a basic functional boat, like Herjolfur, the ferry between Vestmannaeyjar and mainland Iceland, or the Nantucket ferry or the old Long Island side-wheel steamers from the late nineteenth century. The Viking Line’s Gabriella, however, is a 10-deck luxury cruise ship, complete with a nightclub, multiple restaurants, tax-free shopping, and even an onboard sauna. Lots of people (including a number of heavily intoxicated Finns I met onboard), it turns out, take the ferry two nights in a row across the Baltic and back as a sort of weekend outing where the purpose is to enjoy the tax-free alcohol rather than actually to get anywhere. Much like a trip to Las Vegas, this cruise ship experience was something I’m glad to have seen once, but definitely don’t need to repeat. It did turn out to be a nice trip, though, because from the top deck of this behemoth of a ship provided an excellent view of the Stockholm archipelago as we were leaving and of Helsinki as we arrived in the morning.

Here’s the behemoth of a ship herself, dwarfing the city of Helsinki.

The view of the Stockholm waterfront – the main cityscape…

…the island of Djurgården, where the Vasa Museum is located, also with an amusement park and cleverly-decorated giraffe construction cranes…

…and sunset over the archipelago as we sailed across the Baltic.

Then the next morning, I could see the Suomenlinna sea fortress, built in the 18th century while Finland was ruled by Sweden. This is also one of the surprising number of places in the city that I recognized from my first trip to Helsinki nine years ago, which strangely enough, was also for an international environmental conference.

As we pulled into the harbor, I had an excellent view of the waterfront, some of which I also remembered from my prior visit way-back-when…

…and of the Marina Congress Center, where I spent four days hanging out with the fisheries nerds.

I spent most of my time in Helsinki at the ICES conference, where I got a general feel both for some of the current research in fisheries science and fisheries management in the North Atlantic and for the procedural process (i.e. mess) of generating scientific advice on the fish stocks of the North Atlantic. The EU formally asks for ICES to provide advice that is then theoretically the scientific basis for European fisheries management, and this whole process of getting all the scientists from twenty different countries together to generate advice – before even getting to the process of then making policy for all these countries – makes Iceland seem very, very simple. I know I will be able to spend the next six months trying to decipher the European Common Fisheries policy and how it as applied, but I think I could spend a lifetime trying to figure it out.

ICES is also currently going through some major structural changes in how it structures its various committees (each with a different name that is mostly informative once you know something about the system, despite the fact that they are bantered around as if there should be an inherent difference between a “committee” and a “program” or an “expert group”), ultimately aimed at creating a structure that can accommodate the ongoing shift from single-stock species-based management to ecosystem-based management, including integration of non-science disciplines. In general, this seems like a good idea, but I was frankly far over my head in trying to decipher the bureaucratic structure of the organization and the political and procedural framework in which it works. I wasn’t quite clear by the end of the meeting what ICES actually sees as its purpose for existing – some combination of providing advice on fish stocks, creating a forum for international dialogue and cooperation in science and management, and promoting and guiding further research in marine science – but beyond the hazy boundaries, I couldn’t quite figure out what is and is not considered within the scope of ICES. This is probably partly the fault of my ignorance of organizational history and details, but I also suspect that it has something to do with confusion within the organization itself. I was curious, for instance, why ICES seems so dominantly focused of fisheries biology without incorporating all the other aspects of an ecosystem that should tie into ecosystem-based management (for instance, why shouldn’t the research I did last year on water chemistry in the bioluminescent bays of Vieques be relevant to “exploration of the seas”?). It seems like ICES does interdisciplinary, applicable science better than most organizations I’ve come across, but there is still most certainly room for expansion and improved integration across disciplines, both within the sciences and into relevant fields in history, economics, sociology, anthropology, etc.

Here are 650 fisheries nerds at the opening session, where we heard speeches from both the President of Finland and the Mayor of Helsinki. Yup, Finland cares about its fisheries so much that the president came to talk to us and the mayor invited us to a fancy evening reception at city hall and even shook my hand on the way in.

It wasn’t all work though – I also had time to see the city a bit, both some exploring, and lovely walks from the hostel where I was staying (in the old Olympic Stadium from 1952) to the conference center.

The Olympic Stadium, with a tall tower easy to see from all across town.
Also conveniently located near a very nice sauna and Olympic-size swimming pool, which I of course had to try one night before leaving. And the Finns are right – Icelandic sauna just doesn’t compare with the saunas in Finland (though only in Finland do they ban swimsuits from the sauna).

I also happened across a Finnish military marching band, which traveled 50 kilometers from the base to an area on the outskirts of downtown Helsinki to perform a birthday concert for a man who apparently used to have some sort of important connection with the government/military and also is apparently the richest man in Finland. Pretty nifty birthday present, a marching band coming to perform right on the street outside your house…I guess these are the benefits of being rich and famous.

Also, can you tell the theme I found among the statues all across Helsinki?

I kept laughing out loud each time I saw one of these statues looking regal and statuesque with a bird nonchalantly perched atop.

So that was my brief introduction to Scandinavia – maybe not what the average tourist tends to see, but I think a good introduction nonetheless. From Helsinki, I flew to Copenhagen, where I spent just a few days – enough time to acquire my visa (finally!) from the Immigration Service office, spend Yom Kippur (Jom Kippur in Danish transliteration) at the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen (fairly different from what I’m used to at home, though I recognized a lot of the Ashkenazi melodies and I met some really wonderful people who told me some more about the Jewish community in Denmark beyond what I remembered from Lowis Lowry’s Number the Stars), and take a day to see what I could of the city before heading north. Copenhagen is really a gorgeous city, also profoundly maritime much like Stockholm – I’ll definitely have to spend more time there before I leave Denmark, but I was glad to have the chance to walk around the city in the early autumn weather (it feels so warm here! This is the furthest south I’ve been since the end of June, and it shows). I caught up on my touristy activities by going to see the Little Mermaid statue by the harbor (the original pre-Disney version of the story was written by Hans Christian Anderson, probably the Danish author I know best), one of the most inexplicably popular tourist attractions I’ve ever come across…

…watched the changing of the guard at the royal palace…

…and took a canal tour all around city from Nyhavn, a gorgeous (though now rather gentrified) port area lined with beautiful wooden sailing boats.

I was sorely tempted to leave off the fish for a while and see if someone would let me work on one of these gorgeous boats. But I suppose there’ll be plenty of time starting next summer for me to play around on boats.

So now I’m at the North Sea Centre in Hirtshals, a full quarter of the way through my year’s travels and just beginning the next stage of my adventure here in Denmark.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Very Icelandic Rosh Hashanah

L'shana tovah, Jews of the world.

This has been the strangest Rosh Hashanah I've ever celebrated. I spent the day in a manner completely counter to everything about Jewish tradition that emphasizes community, completely on my own. I considered briefly developing some Icelandic-Jewish traditions - I read somewhere that it's considered good luck to eat both the head of a fish or the head of a lamb for Rosh Hashanah, which sound much more like an Icelandic than a Jewish tradition - but quickly decided against it. Instead, I dressed up and ate apples and honey and watched the trees and the tents blowing in the wind in the campground while going through the major parts of the service that I could remember and took a walk through the botanical gardens behind the hostel and threw some bread crumbs in the lake in the garden for tashlich (my sins were eaten by ducks rather than washed away, but I suppose it's the same sort of idea). No shofar, although the fans at the soccer match between Iceland and North Ireland erev Rosh Hashanah were blowing these plastic horns all over the place which I guess sound a little like a shofar. There are, in fact, Jews other than me in Iceland, but not enough to have Rosh Hashanah services on Rosh Hashanah. The 50 or so in the country will hold some sort of service on Saturday, but by that point I will have left Iceland.

Which brings me to my imminent travel plans: tomorrow morning I leave from Reykjavik to embark on the next segment of my Watson journey. I will be flying to Stockholm, Sweden, where I will get a chance to meet a fellow Williams-Mystic alumnus studying on a Fulbright at the Vasa Museum, then the next day taking an overnight ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki, where I will spend four days at the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) annual science conference (i.e. hanging out with a lot of very smart fisheries nerds). And after that, I move on to my next long-term destination in Denmark.

For those curious about the status of my Danish visa, it has been officially approved by the Danish Immigration Service, but I do not actually have all the official paperwork taken care of and the stamp in my passport. Somehow the message last week of "it's in the mail" today became "it's been delayed because the woman working on it is home with an illness" (how that happened I have no idea, but it's best not to ask too many questions about these things). But since it's already been approved, the official word from the Danish Immigration Service is that I can get the official stamp in my passport after I'm already in the country. So I will get to Copenhagen with three days left as a legal Schengen tourist and the number to call for the Danish Immigration Service so I can get all the paperwork taken care of during my first few days in the country. I'm relieved that I won't have trouble getting into Denmark even without the visa in hand, but I'll feel much better once the paperwork is done and I have the stamp in my passport.

So now begins the next adventure - I'll have more stories of fisheries nerds and exciting travels, plus some final thoughts on Iceland, coming soon.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Lundi Pysja!

Lundi means puffin in Icelandic. Pysja is baby puffin, or puffling. Baby puffins, people! They are so, so adorable! I was lucky enough to be in Vestmannaeyjar just as the pufflings, late this year, began to emerge from their nests and head out to sea. After a poor years with few pufflings, this was a good year, and everyone in town was very excited about it.

Adult puffins nest on the cliffs of Vestmannaeyer, laying their eggs and raising their babies in nests dug into the cliff face. All summer, both parents travel to and from the nest, bringing food (mostly sand eels) for their hungry but helpless babies. At the end of the summer, the pufflings come out of their nests in the ground and fly out to sea, drawn by the moonlight as the constant light of summer yields to dark nights in August. This is the first times these babies test out their wings, and they basically have only enough instinct to make this one flight out to sea.

The day I hiked around the island, I stopped at a cliff face on the far side to the south with a particularly high number of puffin nests - steep and grassy. Puffin parents were continually flying to and from the nests, close enough that I could see their brightly-colored bills and even sometimes the fish they were carrying back to the nests. Between their bright colors (only found on the adults, not on the babies) and their very rapid wing motions while flying - they look as if they are constantly on the verge of crashing - I can see why they are known as "clowns of the ocean." Though my camera wasn't fast enough to capture them, this is what one looks like, complete with sand eels in its bill (picture taken in the Aquarium & Museum of Natural History in town).
While I was watching, I happened to run into a scientist I had met during the week - not a fisheries scientist, but a puffin scientist. He has been checking up on the puffin nests on this cliff to see how many baby puffins were hatched, how they have been growing, and when they leave the nests. Over the past few years, there have been far fewer young pufflings born, possibly because of a decrease in the population of sand eels (also a mystery, since there in no commercial fishing on sand eels). Between the worries about declining populations and the cuteness of his research subjects, it's not surprising that everyone wants to hear about Puffin Guy's research. This particular afternoon, he was accompanied by a German TV crew producing a documentary. He invited me to watch along with them as he checked up on the pufflings. Though the Germans seemed concerned I'd get in the way, I was thrilled.
He used a camera basically on a wire tether, much like an underwater camera, which he inserted into the nest. The camera, which was designed for good visibility in the dark conditions inside the nests, feeds a black and white image to a pair of goggles he put over his eyes, allowing him to watch the inside of the nests in real time while he manipulated the camera in the field.
Of course, since it was for a documentary, after he finished doing the actual science of checking in the puffin nests, they had to ask him to redo much of it in a sort of scripted, posed fashion to they could get better shots. To make their documentary seem more authentic/exotic, they also insisted that he answer all of their interview questions in Icelandic, which none of the Germans understood. Since they asked the questions in English and he feels completely comfortable with the language (he did his PhD research in the US), they kept having to start over because he kept trying to answer their questions in English. So I learned something about television, in addition to learning about puffins.
While they changed the camera tape, I even got a chance to try out this fancy camera myself and look in one of the nests, though I wasn't nearly so adept. I did see that one of the nests that had had a puffling earlier that week was now empty, a good sign that the pufflings were beginning to head out to sea.

Each year, some are confused by the lights in town and on the pavement instead of on the water. The pufflings have instincts to navigate once out on the ocean, but they have no idea what to do when they find themselves on roads or in houses and gardens. They huddle in dark corners or wander in the streets, likely to be run over or eaten by local dogs or cats unless someone rescues them and gives them another chance to make it out to sea.

The children (and visitors like me) rescue the pufflings by searching for them in the streets and dark corners, armed with flash lights to help lure them out and cardboard boxes to hold the catch. Kids compete to catch as many puffins as they can, but the past few years there have been few to find. This year has been better, and I went along with two families to watch children release the puffins they had caught the night before.

The proud father with his son's puffling. You can see that it's not just the kids who get excited about puffling season.
Here he is with his son as they send the puffling out to sea.
This boy is releasing the first puffling he has caught in two years, not for lack of trying but for scarcity of puffins.
He throws the puffin up in the air, giving it another chance at its first flight, hoping to send it as far out to sea as possible so that it can get a head start on surviving to adulthood.
After a few trips watching local kids release their pufflings, I was not only excited - I wanted one too. So when two local women (they were originally from the US and Canada, which was how we met, but both long-term residents of the small island of Heimaey) offered to take me out looking for a puffling, I was ready to go. Unlike the kids, who search with flashlights, these women used the car headlights to try to lure out and spot the scared little birds. We had cruised the whole town without seeing any and were considering just going home when we spotted a little puffin in the middle of the road. Both other women insisted that I should be the one to catch it, so I got out of the car and headed after it - and after some combination of chasing and stalking, letting it out of my inexperienced grasp, I caught myself a puffling.
Since it was much too late and dark to be throwing baby birds out to sea, I put it inside a cardboard box (the women had one in the car; like most islanders, they always had one this time of year, just in case). The puffling and I went back to the hostel for the night until I could take it to the cliffs the next day.

Unfortunately, my little puffling had a hard night. At first, I kept it and its box in my room (the attic, which is technically the dormitory and thus the cheapest place to sleep, but there weren't any other guests, so instead I had the biggest room in the place all to myself). But the little puffling was so scared and confused, it wouldn't stop flapping and trying to get out of the box, which created quite a ruckus. So I moved the box downstairs to the hostel common room. But in the morning, when I went to check on it, the box was open and there was no puffling inside!

Luckily, it hadn't made it very far. I found a very scared puffling huddled in the corner...and bird poop all over the room. Oops. It was definitely time to send this puffling out to sea.

But first, we had one last stop together. For science.The poster advertises an ongoing project to collect information about the puffin population in Heimaey - they ask all the children on the island to weigh their puffins and submit their data at the Aquarium & Museum of Natural History, conveniently located at the end of town near where I was planning to release my puffling. Some children, like the son of the scientist who heads the Marine Research Institute branch in town who brought his son and his son's puffling to work, can figure out how to weigh their puffling on their own. For everyone else, there is a small puffling-sized scale outside the museum so you can weigh the pufflings any time of day. This was a Saturday, though, and the museum was open and there were lots of kids and pufflings taking their birds inside to have them measured - so of course, I went in too.

Rather than a giant smiling puffin like the one on the poster, I found the proprietor of the museum surrounded by children, weighing and measuring the wingspan of each of their pufflings before sending them on their way.I waited my turn (for once mostly ignored by the local kids - I was for some a point of curiosity since I was hanging around "local places" like the library, but I just can't outcompete cute baby bird). And then got a chance to weigh and measure the wingspan of my own puffling.
And that was it. It was time for my little puffling to head out to sea. I walked out to the steep cliffs on the northwestern side of the island, hoping to give my puffling a head start out to sea by throwing it from high up and helping it get farther out on the second flight of its life. I took some final pictures, and then off it went.Good luck, lundi pysja!

I am a great fan of this tradition on Heimaey that has developed over the past few decades. It helps the puffins, provides a fantastic source of entertainment and local tradition for the kids (and adults) - imagine something like Halloween every night for weeks, and is a great learning opportunity, both for teaching kids to respect and learn about nature and for explaining the value of science in a very hands-on way. When people talk about puffins in Iceland, they often mention that people here eat puffins and puffin eggs, yet another example of strange Icelandic tastes. It's true - and people still do eat puffins and puffin eggs as a delicacy - but even more notable, I think, is this relationship the island has developed with its puffin population. Hopefully a tradition that will last for generations to come.

Climbing the Volcanoes: Hiking Eldfell and Helgafell

The weather was miserable for most of my time in Vestmannaeyar - lots of wind, rain, and fog, which is pretty standard this time of year. For the first week, I kept waiting for the weather to let up so I could climb the two volcanoes that fringe the town: Helgafell, the old volcano to the south that has been there since before humans settled the island, and Edlfell, the famous volcano that erupted in 1973, still warm and bare of vegetation. Looking back towards town and across town to the volcanoes from the west, Eldfell is on the left and Helgafell is on the right.
Although I took most of my pictures on the single beautiful day during my two weeks in Vestmannaeyar, most of the time it looked something like this:Finally, I realized that the weather wasn't going to get any better, and I wasn't going to miss my chance to summit two volcanoes just because of a little wind and rain. I did manage to mostly avoid the rain, but both of these were very windy hikes: my jacket made a noise that sounded like a helicopter taking off while flapping in the wind and I actually was afraid I would be blown off the top of Eldfell. (But I didn’t get blown off, and instead came back to share pictures with you.)

My first trip was up Eldfell, which as you can see looks very distinctly like a volcano. A cinder cone, to be precise, covered nearly entirely with distinctive brick red tephra.
It was a steep climb, largely scrambling up slippery tephra slopes in the wind, and by the time I had climbed up and then skidded back down, my shoes were full of little bits of tephra.
Though I did get to look out over the ocean and the lava field created by the 1973 eruption on the way up.
And from the top, it was all worth it for the fantastic views - first to the south, all the way out to the tip of the island, and to the north, looking out over the town and harbor and surrounding cliffs.I look (and was) pretty cold, but I was excited to warm my hands over the residual heat of the volcano - the crater really does still feel warm to the touch!

There were also lots of nifty-looking features left behind by the explosive eruption, which produced fountains of lava up to 150 meters high. This arch was my favorite, mostly for the picturesque framing of the cliff across the harbor.
To complete my volcano tour, I also climbed Helgafell, seen here looking from the south, with the town just beyond the volcano. You can tell it's a much older eruption because nearly the entire cone is as green as the hillside below. The contrast is particularly obvious in this photo, which I took from the top of Eldfell and shows the red of the recent tephra in the foreground.With grass on the slope, it was a much less harrowing journey up and I made it to the top much faster. You can see that even the crater at the top has grown over. (It was also sheltered from the wind, so I took a break from hiking and sat inside the crater for a while to eat my lunch and read for a while.) You can see that it was still pretty windy up there, but more beautiful views - and there I was at the top of another volcano!With the continual bad weather, I must admit I was ready to move on from Vestmannaeyar after two weeks, but really, I think this was my favorite place in Iceland. I'll have to come back someday and climb again in better weather...